Stawell is without its greatest fire hazard after almost ten years of the town’s tyre yard laying dormant and looming as a threat to the community.
The last of one million tyres was removed from the site by Environment Protection Authority Victoria this week.
EPA chief executive Nial Finegan said about 9500 tonnes of tyres and shred was cleared after repeated failure by the site’s owners to comply with orders to reduce the fire risk at the site.
“On August 2, 2017 it was decided that little to no effort had been made by the stockpile’s owner to comply with a CFA Fire Prevention Notice or any of three EPA notices issued on the site that required the owner to reduce the risk of fire at the site and to segregate tyres into smaller piles,” he said.
“Unacceptable environmental and community risks remained on the eve of the forthcoming fire season.
“EPA was of the view that the stockpile appeared to have been abandoned or was being handled in a manner by the owners that was likely to cause an environmental hazard.”
More than 380 trucks filled with tyre and shred were taken from the site, with the majority going to Melbourne to be processed at an EPA-licensed site.
The site was inspected twice-weekly during the process to ensure appropriate management.
About 35 per cent of the tyres and shred were unable to be processed due to contamination from mud and dirt, and went to landfill.
Mr Finegan said if the stockpile had caught fire it would have had many environmental, economic and social risks for Stawell and its surrounds.
“The environmental impacts would have included air quality, firewater runoff into local waterways and land contamination,” he said.
“By removing this stockpile, EPA has removed these risks to both the local community and our environment.
“In the event of a fire there would likely have been a need to evacuate about 7000 people from Stawell. A fire also would have impacted on the brand of Grampians tourism in areas such as the Great Western and the Pyrenees and Grampians wine regions.”
Mr Finegan said there would also have been agricultural impacts, waterway impacts from fire water and contamination, and a likely closure of major highway and railway connections.
“As well, one of the Stawell region’s largest employers is a local abattoir, located just 300 metres away from the stockpile site and employs 450 people. A fire at the stockpile would have closed this company for an unspecified amount of time that would have had consequences on the local economy,” he said.
EPA’s action to remove the stockpile was seen as a “last resort” and it will seek to recover costs from current and/or previous owners and occupiers of the site.
“For 10 years, various owners of the stockpile were given every opportunity to comply with legal and regulatory obligations but failed to take material steps to properly manage the site’s risks to the community,” Mr Finegan said.
“The removal of this fire hazard has cost about $5 million, but EPA will use its legal powers to seek to recover these costs from the owners of the site through the courts.”
EPA seized control of the tyre yard in August, shortly after the site's owner, Used Tyre Recycling Corporation, had 'gifted' the property to a mysterious company registered in Panama, which then tried and failed to get a Supreme Court injunction against the EPA.
A lawyer for the company told the court it only became aware of fire prevention notices issued on the site by the Country Fire Authority and the EPA only shortly before EPA took control of the tyre yard.
The lawyer said the company needed more time to implement measures to reduce the risk of a toxic blaze.
But Justice Karin Emerton found there was "overwhelming evidence" in favour of the EPA.
The ruling allowed for EPA to clear the hazardous mountain of rubber before the next fire danger season.
Northern Grampians Shire Council mayor Tony Driscoll welcomed the news. “Our community’s safety is paramount and we are grateful to the EPA and all agencies for finding a resolution.”